America loves corn, and there’s plenty left over for fuel

Americans consume an average of 25 pounds of corn every year, and that presumably includes a mountain of ears that will be munched on that most patriotic of American holidays, the Fourth of July.

corn-July 4Yet the corn we eat at the dinner (or the picnic) table represents only 1 percent of the total corn grown in the United States. That kind is called sweet corn, which has soft kernels. About 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is field corn, also known as dent corn, for the tiny dents on each kernel. If you’re driving in, or through, one of the big corn states this weekend, this is the main variety you’re likely to see, in row after row as your car whooshes by.

Here’s a close-up view, courtesy of Shutterstock, of how sweet corn and field corn differ in appearance:

corn cobs

According to the Minnesota Farm Guide:

Although field corn kernels start out soft like sweet corn, it’s not harvested until the kernels are dry. Field corn is used to feed livestock, make the renewable fuel ethanol and thousands of other bio-based products like carpet, make-up or aspirin.

Or wall paint or soap or sandpaper or makeup, or dozens of other industrial products, according to the National Corn Growers Association.

corn-childYou wouldn’t get a satisfying experience eating field corn, no matter how much you boiled it. It has a hard outer husk and a very starchy kernel. Your little ones would cry if they ate it, and wonder why you’re ruining their July 4th celebration. Animals, especially those we like to eat, enjoy field corn better, which is why field corn is used to process into feed for livestock, including cows and pigs.

Some field corn is ground up and used for corn meal, corn starch and cooking oil. But an inordinate amount of corn is also used to make high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener for soft drinks.

So now you’re up to speed on corn. Why should you care? Because at Fuel Freedom, the main concern we hear about ethanol, one of the alternative fuels we promote, is that we shouldn’t be using food for fuel. It’s a reasonable concern, on its face. Until you realize that there’s a worldwide glut of corn, with plenty to go around — for food, livestock feed, industrial products, and ethanol.

Corn is more than just food, it’s a versatile industrial product that has many uses. And there are literally mountains of it in the big corn-growing states.

corn-pile2Since we’re making more and more ethanol — the 2018 target under the Renewable Fuel Standard is 18.8 billion gallons — to be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply, it stands to reason that corn prices would keep rising, perpetually. And yet on Thursday corn futures briefly fell to their lowest level since April 5, to $3.6025 a bushel. Four years ago the commodity was $8 a bushel.

We’re not saying corn-based ethanol is a perfect fuel. Cellulosic ethanol, made from plants no mammal would want to eat, is superior because its production and combustion produce fewer well-to-wheel emissions, and because those crops require less water. But corn ethanol (and other high-octane alcohol fuels like methanol) represent the best alternative to gasoline we have, when it comes to liquid fuels that can run in millions of vehicles now. Using more ethanol, whatever the source, is a great way to keep fuel costs low for working Americans; cut tailpipe emissions that foul the air and warm the planet; and strengthen our national security.

Enjoy your long weekend, and your feast. And happy 240th birthday, America: Long live democracy and freedom of choice.

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